Top Cartoons: Snoopy Come Home

There have been over forty animated Peanuts TV specials, and five feature films. There’s a timeless quality to these tales of precocious youngsters. Their lives, activities, pains, and pleasures — baseball games, flying kites, pulling pranks, fitting in — have rarely deviated from what children deal with even today. Snoopy Come Home maintains the themes of the comic, but it pushes them farther than they ever went before.

This is the second animated Peanuts feature, written by Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez. As the title says, the focus is on Charlie Brown’s independent, imaginative, attention-loving beagle, but instead of playing vulture or chasing the Red Baron, he gets trapped at the peak of what amounts to a symbolic love triangle.

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There are tensions in the Peanuts neighborhood. Snoopy’s been spending too much time away from home, fighting with the Van Pelt kids, and standing up his play dates. NO DOGS ALLOWED signs are cropping up at his favorite haunts, and even that round-headed kid is pounding him with lectures. It seems as though he just doesn’t belong anymore.

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So when a letter from a mysterious girl named Lila arrives, which spurs Snoopy on an impromptu road trip, everyone feels responsible.

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It turns out that Lila is Snoopy’s original owner, who, for some reason, had to give up her puppy when her family moved. She returned him to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where Charlie Brown’s parents later discovered him.

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Now Lila is sick with an unnamed, but  serious disease, and misses her pup terribly. Snoopy and his bud Woodstock try to use mass transit to reach her, but NO DOGS ALLOWED signs stymie them, so they have to make the trip through unfamiliar towns and wilderness on foot. They travel a mighty long distance together, bonding, joking, and generally dealing with the rustic life. On one occasion, however, their adventure, and their lives, are put in serious jeopardy.

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Having gone without human companionship, Snoopy is pleased to spot Clara, a gal playing in the sand outside her house. He runs up and greets her, but she seizes him, kidnaps him, and attempts to forcibly adopt him.

Clara is more or less a relative of Tiny Toons’s Elmyra, with no awareness or empathy for an animal’s feelings. She gives Snoopy a flea bath, repeatedly dunking him underwater. She ties a hefty rope around his neck and yanks him around. She dresses him in hideous clothes for a tea party. Then, when she spills her tea on him, she blames Snoopy, and gives him a spanking.

It must be noted that Linda Ercoli, the voice actress for Clara, is amazing. At only thirteen years old, she gives Clara an impressive range of emotions, from giddiness to rage, and she’s always  horrifying. She even sings a very complicated patter song with aplomb and perfect rhythm.

After a crazy and intense chase, our wayward heroes make their escape, perhaps having learned something about dealing with strangers.

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is haggard with worry. His friends reach out and provide advice to help him accept that Snoopy is likely gone for good, but nothing works.

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When Snoopy finally reaches his old friend, he has to make a tremendous decision. Lila feels so much better with her doggy around that she begs him to come back to her. It is here that Melendez’s direction best demonstrates its wisdom. Melendez understood that Snoopy’s comic strip thought-bubbles wouldn’t work in a film, so he instructed  his animators to pour their efforts into the pup’s physical expression. He may be a simple-looking cartoon character, but the agony Snoopy displays at Lila’s request is truly heartbreaking.

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What follows is a series of shockingly painful scenes, restrained only with a stingy sprinkle of humor. There are tearful, even maudlin, partings, and a haunting portrait of real depression as Charlie Brown is unable to eat or sleep in the absence of his dear friend. The sequence plays to a wistful lament called “It Changes,” which, while written with innocent and childlike language, will likely never be understood by any but the most scarred of children.

Speaking of music, one will notice that Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano themes are missing from this film. You won’t even hear the iconic “Linus and Lucy” anywhere in it. The score is by Richard and Robert Sherman, who also worked on Disney’s The Jungle Book and Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web. Their work here swerves from pleasant and dark, just like the film itself.

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Mercifully, two wonderful payoffs await, and the film closes with enough joy to conquer the preceding misery.

Snoopy Come Home baffled most critics, and even Roger Ebert described it as “schizoid.” I agree that it vacillates from one emotional extreme to the other, but I don’t know if that damages the film in any way. Peanuts has always been tinged with anxiety, and I believe that’s part of its endearing nature. I don’t believe it would continue to be printed in today’s comics if Schulz hadn’t dared to mix his own insecurities and doubts into the minds of his cute little characters. I think this movie is quite an achievement, even if it would never play well with today’s audiences, who expect shiny computer animation instead of the exquisite hand-drawn work shown here.

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ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS: Contact Imminent!

Well, here we go! The time for Ultimate Top Cartoons starts here. The following cartoons are simply the best. Projects of their scale, depth, and beauty are what I have always dreamed of being part of…or even producing myself.

Now I admit that I’m prone to gushing at times, but since these works are so enormous, it’s impossible for me to like every single bit of them. I hope that no one will be upset with the criticism that I level at these cartoons. If it bugs you, then you should really just relax and remember that no work is perfect.

Anyway, let’s hit the gas.

Ultimate Top Cartoon #5 is incoming….

Top Cartoons: Stimpy’s Invention

Anyone who watched The Ren & Stimpy Show remembers Stimpy’s Invention. While I think Man’s Best Friend is a superior R&S episode, the sheer madness in the second half of Stimpy’s Invention makes it a top cartoon.

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Even the title card is awesome. Set to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, it sets the uneasy tone for what’s to come.

Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t get off to the best start. Stimpy asks Ren to test out his silly and useless “invinshins,” which sets in motion a series of weak gags that are only funny because of the excellent voice acting. Safe though they are, I think these scenes serve their purpose in providing characterization, as well as setting up contrast.

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After this, we get a long, long, long sequence of Stimpy at work in his laboratory. There are couple of funny shots, but overall this feels like padding. Once Stimpy yells “Eureka!” however, the cartoon takes flight and never touches the ground again.

Stimpy’s newest invention is the Happy Helmet, a mood-altering abomination that forces its wearer to feel elated all the time. Stimpy ambushes Ren with this device, and a freaky transformation follows (brilliantly set to The Flight of the Bumblebee). The poses and animation here are tremendous, unlike anything seen in most cartoons. Ren goes so far off-model that most square studios would never allow it. Thankfully, Spumco is no square studio. Laying out this cartoon must have been a hell of a lot of fun.stimpys-invention-mkv_snapshot_07-25_2014-02-16_01-45-17.png

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Having turned into a mindlessly cheerful drone, Ren goes on to perform “wonderful things” for Stimpy, like ironing the cat’s underwear and cleaning his litter box, and the parade of astonishing poses continues. I mean, just look at this! Nobody does stuff like this. There’s no way Disney would ever contort its precious characters in this way, and even Warner Bros. never took things to these extremes.

Finger_in_kitty_litter.pngren ironingren cat boxThe climax of Stimpy’s Invention is, as most know, the haunting musical number of Stinky Wizzleteats’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” This scene is pretty much indescribable. Ren & Stimpy cavort to this bizarre children’s ditty, performed by John Kricfalusi himself in a weird homage to Burl Ives. As the song hits its crescendo, Ren rediscovers his willpower and frees himself from the Happy Helmet by smashing himself on the head with a ball-peen hammer. It all happens in time with the song, too. It’s amazing.

Here’s something strange: when I first saw this as an eleven-year-old, and the spotlights fell on the characters, I somehow knew that I was about to see something that wasn’t just special, but historic.

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It is here that John Kricfalusi first demonstrated to the world that mixture of disturbing and funny that would be the hallmark of his work ever after. Many cartoons — including Billy & Mandy, The Brothers Grunt, Spongebob Squarepants, and Adventure Time — have attempted to recapture this sinister-yet-silly tone that’s so well encapsulated in Stimpy’s Invention, but none has succeeded. Some of the shows on Adult Swim come close, but I’m not sure they count since, well, they’re not aimed at children, and thus, have no lines to toe. What Ren & Stimpy got away with blows the mind, as well as the doors for all outrageous cartoons that followed.

:O :\ :(

Chased the muse yesterday until the wee hours. Felt great. Why did I avoid it for so long? The Muse has only ever energized and fulfilled me. Why did I feel scared before? It’s not Writer’s (or Animator’s) Block; I know exactly what I want to express. It’s just that when I look at my projects sometimes, I freeze. Where is this coming from?

I have a feeling that I’m digging into something very important here. I need to find out what’s getting in the way and root it out.

Some Interesting News (to me, anyway)

Lately, I’ve been whoring out promoting my animation demo reel on Twitter and in job applications, and not really getting much attention. The situation has been rather discouraging.

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After mulling things over for a few days, a 20-watt light bulb went on over my head. I realized that I was casting my line into the wrong pond. You can’t count on the old pathways to get you started anymore. Creative success no longer lies in traditional job markets.

It lies in fucking YouTube, damn it!

So I reached out to a couple of popular YouTube channels that I’m a fan of (not fucking PewDiePie; I’d prefer to sell my soul). I made sure to contact the ones with a lively sense of humor, ones that might like to add some cartoons to their videos. I wasn’t sure that anyone would respond, but one did.

James Rolfe of Cinemassacre.

This guy is a passionate filmmaker, best known as the Angry Video Game Nerd. He told me that he’d been interested in adding animation to his videos for a while, but had been deterred because it’s such a slow procedure. If it was going to happen, he knew he’d need help. He liked my demo reel, and told me he’d be happy to work with me once he gets caught up on his current queue of projects.

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James’s YouTube channel has nearly two million subscribers.

Wish me luck.